Chattanooga Times Free Press entertainment reporter Casey Phillips spoke with mandolinist Danny Roberts of The Grascals about staying in touch with his family on the road, Western clothing in Japan and why it’s better to tour with friends.
CP: How do you guys keep yourselves sane on the road? How do you keep tempers from flaring up?
DR: For me, staying in touch with my wife and daughter has helped me. Skype has helped, being able to see their faces. My daughter just got an iPod that does FaceTime. My old iPhone doesn't do that, so they're making me go get a new iPhone, so we can FaceTime with each other. That kind of thing really makes a difference for us, just being in constant contact.
I've been in place like in Canada or Japan, where it's tough because it's so expensive to talk. Before you had FaceTime, you would go four or five days without being able to talk to your family hardly at all. Now that Skype has come along, you can do it from your hotel. That's helped a bunch. You just know that's what you have to do.
I know for me and my family, they understand that's what I do. You have to make it happen. Everybody has those things. If you're a truck driver or an executive who travels for his company, a lot of people have to have those kind of jobs where they have to be gone. Fortunately, mine is one I really enjoy.
CP: How is bluegrass received abroad? Do foreign audiences respond well to it?
DR: It's been great. It's amazing. What surprises me is like when we're in Greece and Fracne and Japan to look at the crowd when you're singing. People who don't even speak English are singing along with you because they have your records and know your music. That's really cool.
When we were in Japan, we played a festival over there to 25,000 people. It was hilarious. It was like watching something from the '80s here in the states. They were all in cowboy hats and boots and doing line dancing. It was just hilarious. On their festival site, they had a big Western store, and people were going in and buying tons of Western wear and having a ball with it. France was the same way. We did a festival there, and they weren't as much into the line dancing, but it's neat to see that.
Then you get into some of the smaller venues. We were in Belgium and played a club/restaurant with 400 seats, and being in a more intimate place and watching those people sing along with you to something and then come up to you and not even be able to speak to you. That's neat.
They seem more educated over there. Over here, there's so much great music everywhere - so much bluegrass and everything - that people don't educate themselves with the artists they're going to see. Over there, there's so much less of it that they really do make themselves familiar with who their going to listen to.
CP: When you're abroad, you're serving not only as an ambassador of America but also of bluegrass music. Do you approach the music any differently when you're playing internationally?
DR: We sure don't. We do the same thing. When we were in Japan and Greece and France and all those places, we do exactly the same show we do there as we do when we're at the Gettysburg Bluegrass Festival in Pennsylvania.
About the only thing we'll do is when we're in big, huge venues. We plug up our acoustic instruments so we have the power to complete. Generally, when you're in a place like that, we'll be one of the only bluegrass acts there, and everything else is country. You're competing against the drums and all the electric instruments, and if you just go up and stand in front of a microphone, they can't get your volume up enough. If you're playing for 25,000 people at an outdoor event and try to mike a mandolin and try to stay in one place to compete with those electric groups, people won't even hear you. It's easy for people to ignore you if you're volume level is so much lower.
Other than that, we do the same show, the same songs. We might add a few more cover, country-type things at a country festival, but that's what The Grascals are known for anyway. We've done “Viva Las Vegas” and “White Lightning” and all these things. Our way has been to mix traditional country with traditional bluegrass.
Even songs that come out of the rock fields still sounds like a down the middle of the road bluegrass style. We don't change our style to suit the song; we change the song to suit our style.
CP: Your biography emphasizes, how much you all get along personally, as well as musically. What impact does that closeness have on your creative process?
DR: I think it makes such a difference because, from the get go, when this band started, we were all familiar with each other.
When you start a new band and go out with people on the road, you don't know who they are. You don't know somebody until you've lived with them. So many times, I've thought someone is a good guy, and then, you get out on the road, and they do stuff that just bugs you to death, or vice versa.
With us, we (The Grascals) all knew each other and had worked together at different times and different places in different bands. When we started and went out, there were no surprises for us. Having that friendship bond already made it easy for us.
Everyone respects what each other has to say. If one of the guys brings a song in, I don't have any problem saying, “I don't care for that song,” and they don't have any problem saying that to me.
We have a really good working relationship along with a good friendship. All that ties together. When you're out there on the road and away from your family, it's really easy to get irritated at anything. Having friends to travel with makes it so much easier to be away. Fortunately for us, we don't have any internal problems, which makes it a lot easier to handle.
CP: On the bluegrass scale, The Grascals fall seem to fall more on the side of traditional than progressive, yet you are seen as a leading force in the genre. What is your philosophy as far as leaning one way or the other?
DR: When we started the band, we didn't look at it as, “Are we going to be a traditional band or are we going to be a progressive band?” We looked at it as, “We're going to do songs and music that we like. We're going to work up songs we had written in the band that we like.”
All of us in the band had written songs that we would never cut. Other people might cut them, but they don't seem like they would fit us. We'd pull songs from other genres of music, and after playing through it a couple of times, we know if it's going to work out.
The band definitely has strong, strong Osborne Brothers influences. Terry Eldredge and Terry Smith were with them for 25 years combined. That's what brought Jamie Johnson into bluegrass music, listening to the Osborne Brothers with his brother. That is a big thing.
I've always felt like we did things that pushed the envelope and got by with it and people still called us traditional. Every record we've done has had drums and steel guitar. We don't put it out front and mix it up hot, but I think if you do it in a tasteful way and don't try to exploit that different sound and make it blend in, it works out really well.
I guess we never put tags on ourselves and said, “Hey, we're traditional” or “We're this.” We just try to do music that fits our style.
I love bands like The Stringdusters and Cadillac Sky - I love that music - but we couldn't do that kind of music if we wanted to. That's not what we do. I love Del McCoury and really, really traditional things, but we don't fit in with that, either. We fit in in the middle of all of it. That's what The Grascals have been from the start.
CP: Has anyone in the band ever broached the subject of taking the band's sound in a more progressive direction? How would that be received by the band, if that did happen?
DR: We have spoken of it before. Our management and booking agent are all very, very hugely tied into the country world. We've been in band meetings with management, and it's been said, point blank, “We're not changing what we do. If it works for us to go to these places and they like it, that's what we're going to do, but we decided, as a band, that this is what we do.” We're not a progressive jam band. We're not a country band.
We're not going to push ourselves to go in those directions, but when we go to jam band festivals, we go over great; people love what we do. We might, when we get to that kind of place, through in more instrumentals than usual and do more of what we consider our progressive set, but it's still our material. When we do a country festival, it's the same thing. We might lean more toward the songs people are familiar with, but even with that, we'll do a set at a country festival and do “Sunny Side of the Mountain” by Jimmy Martin right in the middle of the festival.
We made a conscious decision that we're not going to have electric guitar and drums and go to country festivals and try and do that. We'll go to country festivals and do what we do. We're not going to go to jam band festivals and do what they do. We have to do what we're doing because we're not them. We are what we are, and that's what people like us for.
I think a lot of the times, bands make the mistake of trying to do what other bands are doing, instead of staying true to what their vision was in the beginning. I think if you stay true to your beginnings, stay the course and follow what you started, you'll always be better. It's just like in politics; people hate a flip flopper. I think it's that way with music - stay with what you're doing.
I've had so many artists I really love in the country field whose music I loved, and somewhere down the line, they switched to something I don't even listen to anymore. I guess they felt like it was better for their career, but for us, it's better to stay with what we started.
With our Cracker Barrel CD, it's definitely way more country - it's got more electrical guitars in it - but it's something we did for Cracker Barrel that was a special thing with artists we brought in trying to help St. Jude. Still probably half the record is what the Gracsals would do anyway - maybe more than half. That was a special, one-off thing.
CP: You guys are perennial award winners at the Society for the Preservation of Bluegrass Music and America and the International Bluegrass Music Association. That season just recently passed. What is the pressure like, leading up to those shows, and as a band, how do you adjust to the lower pressure after it's over?
DR: Honestly, for us, we don't have much wind down. We tour year-round, so as far as that's concerned, it seems like there's always something going on. Fortunately for us, with our management, it seems like every month there's something to look forward to. Last month, we did the “Craig Fergusson Show” and (CBS TV's) “The Talk.” “The Talk” was a huge deal being able to get on there and do the “I Am Strong” song to benefit St. Jude. It seems like there's always some big thing to look forward to, which keeps you interested and keeps you going.
Awards are great - we are so honored with the awards we get and even getting nominated - but honestly, that's a very small part of what we worry about. Our focus is more on our shows and our records and our touring, that kind of thing. Awards are like the icing on the cake.
You get to those awards shows, and it's funny, but it's like Christmas to me. When I was a kid, I couldn't wait for Christmas, and Christmas gets there, and it's over in five minutes. Awards shows are like that. You get all chewed up, you get there, then it's over, and it's like, “Whew. Well, that was quick. Now, we've got another year to go.”
Winning awards are great, and we're so thankful that we get them, but we're stay busy enough that it's not something we focus on.
CP: Dolly Parton helped launch The Grascals career in 2004. Last year, you played with Hank Williams Jr. on his Rowdy Friends Tour. How did you roles in support of Hank differ from Dolly?
DR: With Hank, we were an opening act. It was about every night that we got to see Hank a little bit before the show and hang out just a short bit. Hank flies into every show, no matter where he's at. He flies in about 45 minutes before he goes on stage, goes on stage, does the show, then he gets in his car behind the stage, goes back to the airport to flies home. That's how he operates.
With Dolly, we were such a big part of everything. We opened her shows. Then we went back to do a wardrobe change, came out and were her band. Every day, we had a sound check and rehearsal with Dolly. We spent so much time with her. After she first hired us, we sat for a couple weeks, every day, in a circle with her in the studio working on songs for a CD we cut with her.
Dolly was so good to us and still is so good to us. Dolly has been a huge part of The Grascals' success. Starting out as a new band and getting to be her band gave us such a leg up. Even now, when we need her for something like to come in and be on our “I Am Strong” video or sing on a CD, she'll come in and help us out.
Hank has been on our CDs - he's willing to help us out, too - but it was more personal with Dolly because we had to be more involved with her. Hank has been great for us. He came in a sang on our CD and asked us to come in and sing on his CD. He has talked to us that he may actually try to do a bluegrass thing in the future and wants us to do it with him.
The crowds are different. Dolly's crowds will be all fired up when she hits the stage, and she almost calms them down and has more of an intimate show. She talks to them and sings more laid-back things. She has a more one-on-one rapport with the audience, whereas Hank's crowds are rowdy. They're there to have a good time, so they're cutting up and carrying on. It's like a big party. Everybody is having a great time.
They're all different. When we opened a show for Brookes and Dunn, that was a rowdy crowd. People got up next to the stage and had their hands on the stage when you were playing. These country acts go with the personality of the headliner as to how it will be. We've done shows with Charlie Daniels, and that's a fun time. Charlie is a great friend of the band. We're so honored to do things with him. There have been so many people out there we've gotten to work with. It's always fun and different.
It's different with bluegrass. Bluegrass people are almost like extended family. They get to know you and see you and hang out with you at the CD table. At the big country shows, you go in the back of the arena where you're at, and you're never mixed in any with the audience. That's a big difference, the time on the stage that the audience sees you. They both have their advantages and are a lot of fun. We're very, very fortunate to do both.
CP: What's next for The Grascals, recording wise?
DR: Nothing in the studio. There is a major discussion about a Christmas record. We've had some response to that. We've also had a lot of requests for a gospel CD, which is huge in the bluegrass world.
We left Rounder last year and started our own label last year. The Cracker Barrel record is on that and also the Andy Griffith CD. We've got several record labels talking to us wanting us to do projects with them, and we're in meeting with management and ourselves to figure out if we want to do those or keep our own thing going.
The whole face of the recording world has changed over the last few years. It used to be that you had to have that label to get that distribution. Now, everything has gone to downloads, and it's all so digital. The world has changed. You can record your own projects, and all you have to do is have your own radio pluggers to send the songs out. The record labels aren't nearly as important as they used to be.
We're really liking the way it's worked out for us on these last two CDs, and we're exploring the possibility of doing more on our own.
Probably a greatest hits CD will be coming some time in the future, too. We have so many CDs out now, and on each CD, there are always favorites, so I think that would be good for us, if we had a CD that has a lot of the favorites and a few new songs added, too.
Casey Phillips has worked as a features reporter in the Life department since May 2007. He writes about entertainment, consumer technology, animals and news of the weird. Casey hails from Knoxville and earned a bachelor of science degree in journalism and a bachelor of arts in German from Middle Tennessee State University, where he worked as the features editor for the student newspaper, Sidelines. Casey's writing has earned numerous accolades, including first and second place ...